July 17th started out like any other COVID-19 groundhog day endeavor. Trying to be upbeat and start the day on a positive note because I knew it wouldn't last. Inevitably all our tempers and short fuses would get the best of us the second I needed to get on a conference call, respond to an email for work or meet the needs of another wailing child. In the middle of March COVID closed every door and left our family stranded at home, quarantined to just the 6 of us. Since then we have been struggling to make it to bedtime and meet work deadlines between lunch and laundry each and everyday with no end in sight. From my perspective it has felt like the worst version of groundhog day that a working mom could fathom.
However, July 17th I woke up determined to celebrate. We were exactly ONE month out from starting school according to what the district originally announced. We had survived 4 months of groundhog days, but the end was in sight and we all knew we were in the final stretch. I made pancakes, we used party plates, we made a paper chain to count down the days. We danced to loud music, stayed in pajamas, and did not brush our teeth! We were celebrating the countdown with relief coursing through our veins. We went to the pool that afternoon and I felt complete and utter bliss. Only ONE MORE MONTH. Surely, I can continue to be in survival mode because I knew it would last only 30 more days. That is until the phone rang just after 5 pm that night. The district informed us that school would not be returning August 17th but would start with remote learning for the first nine weeks.
I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach and kicked in the teeth all at once. I was nauseated, exhausted, and felt as if I was teetering on the edge of an all-out panic attack. Not one but THREE more months to endure, and that is a best-case scenario. I thought about what August 17th would look like. Four children who would remain at home, with another one joining us in early October. In less than three months there will be five children in my home, three of them who would need to complete remote learning, two of those three with special needs and IEPs. I still had countless work deadlines, social worker visits, virtual therapy appointments and the list goes on. It seemed to me as the numbers were adding up to be a nightmare math equation with no feasible or realistic solution or answer.
The panic went to numbness and within a few hours I was convinced that we were headed for the worst stretch yet. I felt that I was set up to continue to fail as a mom and an employee. It all seemed so bleak as I thought about what the next three or more months would look like. Mostly because my heart broke for the children in my home. I was not qualified to help them navigate online learning, I was not equipped to meet their IEP goals, I was not ready to do school online for weeks on end. Then I thought of all the things they would miss. There would be no sparkly backpacks, no first day pictures in new outfits. Goodbye organized sports, activities, or potential play dates with new friends. Instead my children would be trapped at home with a cranky mom who had laundry, work calls, too many distractions and not enough to give to each of them. It made me feel like they had the short end of the stick in more ways than one.
Until the next day I spoke with one of our Seven Homes foster moms asking why she had not received a placement call the last few weeks, during times when she expected her phone to ring off the hook. I explained to her that placement calls are down nationwide. In Mecklenberg County alone the CPS calls are currently down 42% and it's not because children are safe. I explained no one is seeing the abuse and no one is reporting it. The abuse is happening, but the tragedy is, no one knows. As I spoke the words aloud, I paused. I let the reality wash over me. The feeling was sobering, it was eerie, somber and made the world stop spinning with my own anxiety as the reality sunk in.
My children are not suffering. Yes, they may have a cranky mom who feels overstretched, ill equipped and out of patience. However, I know with certainty they are fed, they have a parent at home supervising them, they are not being abused or neglected. My grocery bill and laundry baskets during quarantine affirm their needs are not going unmet. What about all the children no one sees. There is a silent suffering population who are going unnoticed for months on end. There are no teachers, professionals, community members or neighbors to see the bruises, the filthy clothes, the weight loss and raise the questions and cause CPS to look a little more closely.
The realities of COVID may feel like they are hitting my family hard, but they are not. The simple fact is this: what feels like suffering to our family is nothing in comparison to the children that should be entering foster care right now but instead remain trapped and unseen at home. Stress levels and unemployment are higher than ever, alcohol sales have skyrocketed. These are “typical indicators” that would indicate a spike in CPS calls normally made by schools, doctors office and community members. However, the abuse is going unseen, and in the last several months the children that we do see coming into care have endured more significant trauma and abuse than we are used to seeing.
When I allow myself to take off my own selfish, exhausted lens that COVID has created and how it affects me personally I think back to that humbling moment when I thought about July 17th. What went through the minds of those children when they heard school would not return. They sat there knowing their secret hell would continue for three more months or more.
How will this new perspective change our mindset and our actions? For foster families and prospective foster families in this season we ask simply this as an agency. Recognize when schools reopen, when life returns to a new normal and the calls flood the system we have to be prepared to ask how will we respond? How will we broaden our criteria to meet the needs of the children who so desperately need us? How do we continue to practice self-care now and prepare as a family so that when the needs arises for more willing families to be safe havens we are ready to meet the need. No matter how challenging our last few months have been I know there are innocent children in our community who have had it far worse than we have.
That painful reality grounds me, it challenges me, it gives me a different perspective. I have a mindset that is not laced in panic or fear. However, I look ahead to the fall and winter with gratitude knowing for the next three months my children will continue to be loved and safe. I pray for safety for the unseen and for comfort for their aching hearts. I pray for foster families and prospective families that they will prepare their hearts and homes to meet the need when our community opens back up. I cling to the hope that our eyes are opened to the devastation that has gone unnoticed in a way that challenges us to act.
We must anticipate what’s ahead and be ready. What started with pancakes and celebration on July 17th reminded me that expectations are not healthy in a season with so many unknowns. Instead of putting my hope in the expectation of what tomorrow holds I will try and have gratitude for today. I will remind myself of the hurting children in my community. The children who were not just hoping for school to return because of new backpacks or spending time with friends, but those who were relying on it for their survival. Instead of seeing the challenges ahead of more laundry, navigating remote learning and doubled grocery bills I will focus on the questions I need to be prepared to consider. How will we as a community respond when these children and teens are finally seen? When we get the call that they need a safe place to call home how will we respond? How can we exchange their isolated days of prolonged abuse and give them a future with hope knowing they are safe?